AHA (alpha-hydroxy acids) are one of the best and desired ingredients in the skin-care pantheon of greats. For very good reason – their very effective exfoliating and anti-aging benefits.
But (there’s almost always a but), AHA can be irritating to the skin. So one of the best ways to ease your skin into AHAs is with a facial cleanser. We round up our favourites for you.
What are AHAs and what do they do for your skin?
Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA), aka fruit acids, are natural acids often found in foods like sugar cane (glycolic acid), citrus (citric acid), milk (lactic acid) and apples (malic acid). They:
- are water-soluble, so they only exfoliate the top layers of your skin.
- can also be manufactured synthetically.
- are chemical – as opposed to physical – exfoliators, which melt the glue that holds dead skin cells to the surface of your skin.
- are a good gentle alternative to physical scrub exfoliators as they don’t rub or tug the skin.
- are better if you have drier, more mature skin.
Removing dead skin build-up allows newer, fresher, healthier-looking skin to emerge, so skin looks more youthful and radiant. AND removing the old barrier allows moisturizers and ingredients to penetrate the skin better.
They are useful in the reduction of acne scars, hyperpigmentation and other discolorations.
Why are AHA cleansers good as opposed to a treatment/serum?
AHA cleansers usually contain AHA at low strengths, which allows your skin to build up tolerance because it has short contact time. The formulation may also include other active ingredients to either stimulate or calm the skin.
As your skin acclimates, you can experiment with leaving the cleanser on a bit longer as an exfoliating mask for a deeper treatment.
Pick your potion
Different AHA forms have different functions. The most popular are:
Glycolic Acid (derived from sugar cane), which is suitable for all skin types. It works to refine uneven skin texture by removing the dead cells from the surface of the skin without drying it out, while stimulating deeper collagen production.
It is extremely effective for treating fine lines, dullness, breakouts and uneven textures.
Lactic acid (found in milk, tomato juice and bilberry, for instance), has an intensely moisturising action on dry skin. It leaves skin brighter, smoother and softer. It helps with hyperpigmentation, dark spots, sun damaged skin, fine lines, and a dull complexion.
Polyhydroxy acids (like gluconolactone, galactosen and lactobionic acid) are the more gentle chemical exfoliant. They have larger molecules, so they don’t penetrate as deeply as AHAs when applied to the skin. This makes them less irritating and better for sensitive skin.
Introduce your skin to AHAs slowly. The exfoliating action can be a bit drying and irritating at first. So start using them every other day, choosing a product with a mild percentage and monitor how your skin reacts. Once your skin acclimates, you should be able to start using them every day.
Wear sun protection. Daily application of sunscreen and limiting sun exposure are essential, as using AHA-infused products regularly can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it more prone to damage.
Avoid using it on open wounds.
If irritation persists, stop using it.
Can you use AHA cleansers daily?
It depends on the strength of the AHA as well as other ingredients. You should stick to concentrations between 4% and go up to 10% max.
You can use AHA cleansers on chest and back breakouts as well, a couple of times a week.
Our top AHA Cleansers
Yours Cloud Factory Foaming Cleanser
Price: $USD 25 for 150 ml
Best for: Multitasking cleansing and super skin boosting.
What is it? This every-day cleanser – named for its thick cloud-like foam – gently removes all the nasties (pollution, makeup, excess oil, dirt) from your skin while maintaining your skin’s natural pH. It also minimizes and rebalances pores, calms sensitive skin, and reduces age spots.
Skin types: All skin types, even sensitive skins.
Dermatologist tested: Yes.
AHA type: Cleanse and exfoliate gently with the power of FIVE fruit acids: Lactic Acid (from Bilberry), Glycolic Acid (from Sugar Cane), Citric Acid (from Orange and Lemon), and Malic and Tartaric Acids (from Sugar Maple).
- Swiss red clover flower (Miniporyl) minimises and rebalances your pores.
- Swiss stone pine extracts (Pinolumin) reduces age spots and evens out your skin tone.
- Niacinamide evens out skin tone and lightens dark spots.
- Plantacare 818 UP (sugar-based cleansing agent) gently cleanses dirt and impurities.
Free of: All the nasties. Parabens, sulfates, etc. Safe, effective and non-toxic ingredients are our top priority.
How to use it: Take 2-3 pumps and gently massage into wet skin in a circular motion for 30-45 seconds. Rinse thoroughly and follow with your toner and serum.
What we like about it: The soft, foaming clouds gently remove dirt and impurities while leaving skin soft, calm and comfortable. It’s suitable for even sensitive skin and the five AHAs do a brilliant job at exfoliating dead skin cells, while other ingredients minimise pores, reduce age spots and even the skin tone.
Innisfree Apple Seed Deep Cleansing Foam
Price: $USD 15 for 150ml
Best for: Oily, shine-prone skin
What is it? This Korean apple-based cleanser has a bit of a cult following. Its claim to fame is that it uses different elements of the apple – seed, peel and extract – for maximum skin benefits.
Skin types: Normal, oily, dry
Dermatologist tested: Unknown
AHA type: Malic acid from apples.
- Freshly cold-pressed apple seed oil has abundant unsaturated fatty acids to help nourish skin.
- Apple extract is rich in antioxidants like Vitamin C and natural alpha hydroxy acids.
Free of: Mineral oil, animal products, imidazolidinyl urea, synthetic colors, sulfates, silicone oil, polyacrylamide, PEG
How to use it: Squeeze onto clean hands and create a lather. Smoothly massage over the face and thoroughly rinse with lukewarm water afterward.
What we like about it:
- The rich, refreshing foam removes light make-up and impurities without stripping the skin.
- Leaves pores clear.
Murad Age Reform AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Price: $USD 42 for 200ml
Best for: A skin splurge.
What is it? This twice-weekly cleanser exfoliator gives you the benefits of a hydrating cleanser plus physical and chemical exfoliation.
Skin types: Oily, acne-prone, combination, dry
Dermatologist tested: Yes
AHA type: Lactic and glycolic acids plus salicylic acid (BHA). Provide gentle exfoliation. Help reveal softer, smoother skin and encourage cell turnover.
- Biodegradable jojoba beads manually exfoliate and help remove dull, dry skin.
- Sodium PCA attracts and helps skin retain moisture.
Free of: Phthalates, gluten, mineral oil, animal-derived ingredients, formaldehyde, oxybenzone, petrolatum/petroleum. Contains parabens.
How to use it: Substitute for your regular cleanser 2-3 times a week.
What we like about it
- It exfoliates gently and comes in multiple sizes.
- It leaves skin feeling smooth, and the hydrating ingredients optimize the skin’s ability to attract & hold moisture to keep it plump and elastic, and to keep the skin barrier functioning properly.
OLE HENRIKSEN Truth Juice™ Daily Cleanser
Price: $USD 33 for 148 ml
Best for: A zesty deep cleanse that invigorates and removes grime and long-wear eye makeup
What is it? A multitasking every-day vegan cleanser made with orange fruit water.
Skin types: All skin types
Dermatologist tested: Unknown
AHA type: Polyhydroxy acids (PHA) Helps loosen and lift dead skin cells
- Orange Fruit Water helps revive and refresh skin.
- Truth Botanicals (orange, lemon, rosehip, gojiberry & seabuckthorn extracts) help condition skin.
Free of: Parabens, sulfates and phthalates.
Cruelty-Free: Yes and vegan
How to use it: Lather. Rinse. No need to repeat.
What we like about it
- The citrusy-fresh cleanser leaves skin feeling fresh, cushiony and revitalised as it removes dirt and long-wear makeup.